A Review of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, By Haider Shahbaz
Hip-hopgave birth to an aesthetic that combined the concepts of disruption and flow. Pioneering artists of the Bronx created rhythms that flowed with ease while at the same time interrupted and broke open songs to add layers and counterpoint to the ongoing emulsion of sound. DJs paused their cassette players and rewound the beat multiple times to make breakbeats and record the perfect breakdown. Early rappers had a stop-go technique—with sharp falls between the bars/verses—that’s testament to the ubiquity of these breakbeats. Hip-hop eschewed the values of harmony, synthesis, and climax—characteristics that provide the basis for most forms of Western music, instead using loops, repetition, and breaks to create a unique and contradictory style.
Kendrick Lamar’s new album, To Pimp A Butterfly, is a fitting tribute to hip-hop’s commitment to disruption and flow and with the split makes for a layered interrogation of society. Even on the cover art, the album’s disruptive intent is clear: a group of jubilant black men and boys, including Lamar himself, stand on the lawn, interrupting the view of the White House. The album seems to be taunting the monolithic, homogeneous global order that works so hard to civilize, surveil, and assimilate all dissent and difference.
The opening track, “Wesley’s Theory,” is a compendium of clashing elements from the archives of Black diaspora culture. The title is a reference to Wesley Snipes’ unsuccessful attempts at employing tax protestor theories to save himself from imprisonment. The song begins with the crack and hiss of vinyl, the beginning to a sample of the Jamaican Boris Gardiner singing the heavy-funk anthem “Every Nigger Is a Star,” from the 1970s Blaxploitation movie of the same name. Before the listener has a chance to settle into the sample, the legendary Parliament singer George Clinton, interjects with an emphatic “Hit me!” and the beat swiftly breaks into producer Flying Lotus’s psychedelic-jazz arrangement, backed by horns and alto sax from Terrace Martin. And as if it wasn’t enough to squeeze the vastly different Snipes, Gardiner, Clinton, and FlyLo into the same song, Kendrick cuts the song midway through with a recorded voicemail from Dr. Dre over a splat of cosmic chords that sound something like Sun Ra’s lost tapes. After an upbeat outro, “Wesley’s Theory” gives way to a sax cry reminiscent of Miles Davis’s flirtations with free jazz which opens to the “For Free? Interlude,” a rap that sounds like a sped-up version of Ginsberg or The Last Poets, accompanied by sparse and textured piano keys.
The spirit of disruption, the same break-and-flow methods that define “Wesley’s Theory” and “For Free? Interlude” are spread throughout the album. Despite the rare guest verses (Rapsody being the only traditional one), Kendrick’s narrative flow is interrupted repeatedly, sometimes cut off in the middle or drowned out to make space for interviews, background vocals, guest choruses, voicemails, audience fights at mock live performances, recurring poetry readings, and funk/soul samples that heighten the album’s open-ended and improvised feeling. The result is an introspective and meditated chaos, a brave and honest desire to introduce differing voices in order to disrupt the flow of Kendrick’s own voice.
The various instruments and improvisations interrupt and cut each other to create polyrhythmic beats that flow across the terrains of different musical genres. In fact, the sheer ambition of the album—in terms of the musical elements and genres it employs—is rarely found in contemporary hip-hop, or even in contemporary soul and jazz, arguably the closest offering in recent memory being D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. Still, the musical excellence of the album doesn’t come as a surprise. Few rap artists have the resources (and the reputation) to acquire the team that Kendrick has assembled. The album includes older legends like Ronald Isley and George Clinton, hip-hop heavyweights like Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, newer voices like Flying Lotus and Robert Glasper, even lesser-known artists like the neo-soul prodigy Bilal, the Stones Throw signee Knx, and Thundercat. Furthermore, Kendrick partly recorded the album with a live band (he has also been performing with one)—a highly uncommon practice in mainstream rap, but one that clearly contributes much of the characteristic jazz to the album.
The musical interruptions reinforce the fragmented narrative structures of the songs. “Wesley’s Theory” is broken into two verses, each spoken from a different perspective, adding to the polyphony of voices already present. On the first verse, Kendrick voices the juxtaposition of the cover-art from the perspective of the stereotyped black artist: “I'mma put the Compton swap meet by the White House/Republican, run up, get socked out/Hit the Press with a Cuban link on my neck/Uneducated but I got a million-dollar check.”
The second verse has Lamar impersonating Uncle Sam, responding to the desires of the artist: “But remember, you ain’t pass economics in school/And everything you buy, taxes will deny/I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass before thirty-five.” The juxtaposition of the two narratives, along with the interruptions in the beat, disrupt the establishment of a central moral truth to the song, and leave the question of consumerism and racial stereotypes strung between the two verses. The structure allows the critical edge of the questions being posed to go deeper instead of being hastily resolved in cliché.
The main narrative conflict in the album is the friction between life and death, a thematic juxtaposition that can be interpreted as the flow and disruption of life itself. “King Kunta,” the most dedicatedly funk offering on the album, finds Lamar comparing himself to Kunta Kinte: “Everybody wanna cut the legs off him.” On “Institutionalized,” he mentions again the elements conspiring toward his death: “If I was the President/I’d pay my mama’s rent/Free my homies and them/Bulletproof my Chevy doors.” On “u,” Kendrick bares suicidal thoughts, interrupting the verses to take swigs of alcohol: “And if this bottle could talk *gulp* I cry myself to sleep/Bitch everything is your fault.” And later: “I think your heart made of bullet proof/Shoulda killed you ass a long time ago/You shoulda feeled that black revolver blast a long time ago.” But the album’s morbid and uncertain verses are matched by an equally assertive counterpart.
The first single, “i”, sees Lamar celebrating the potentiality of life: “Everybody lack confidence, everybody lack confidence/How many times my potential was anonymous?/How many times the city making me promises?/So I promise this, nigga/I love myself.” Similarly, Kendrick exhibits passionate self-ownership on “The Blacker the Berry”: “You hate me don’t you?/You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture/ You’re fuckin’ evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey/You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me.”
The flows are further split by Lamar’s tendency to perform as other characters on the album. He dramatizes a conversation between himself and a homeless man on “How Much a Dollar Cost,” on “Momma” he adopts the perspective of a kid he’s run into on the streets of Compton, and on “These Walls” he speaks from the viewpoint of the woman he is having sex with as well as the father of her child who is now in prison. The alternative narratives are presented in conversation with each other, often as two irresolvable poles of the same argument. For example, Kendrick praises the virtues of hard work in the face of racism on the first verse of “Institutionalized”: “Me, scholarship? No, streets put me through colleges/Be all you can be, true, but the problem is/Dream only a dream if work don’t follow it.” But on the second verse he gives voice to a different side of the argument, this time speaking from the viewpoint of a friend accompanying him to the BET Awards: “Now I can watch his watch on the TV and be okay/ But see I’m on the clock once that watch landin’ in L.A./Remember steal from the rich and givin it back to the poor/Well that’s me at these awards.”
The choice to simultaneously disrupt and flow, and the choice to treat hip-hop as a limitless genre, open to any number of sounds is more than an aesthetic choice. It is also an ethical choice. It’s a choice that welcomes contradiction rather than shuns it, silences, or absorbs it.
In To Pimp a Butterfly, the disruptions are not simply an aesthetic choice, but form the basis of the album’s primary narrative concern: a constant, probing interrogation of one’s own position through the relative positions of others. The other voices on the album—those of other people and those embodied by Kendrick—are not resolved or silenced. They continue to linger inside the music and question its convictions.
Haider Shahbaz was born in Lahore and currently lives in Las Vegas. He is an MFA candidate at the University of Nevada where he also teaches composition classes built around the theme of hip-hop. His fiction is forthcoming in Enizagam.